Wednesday 29 April 2015

For me, the election war is over

“For you, Tommy, ze war is over!” The Germans always said this to captured British soldiers in the war films that were such a staple of my childhood.

Of course they were completely wrong, as Tommy invariably joined an escape committee and made an ingenious exit from his prison camp a couple of reels later.

But for me the General Election certainly is over, because I cast my vote on Saturday.

It feels wrong, just sticking an envelope in a post box rather than making a cross with a stubby pencil in a rickety plywood booth, after joshing with the party canvassers outside, and being ticked off the register by an official.

Not that there were many canvassers to be found outside the long demolished Callaly Women’s Institute hut, where I cast my last vote in person in Northumberland.

The election after that I was away on business so I asked for a postal vote, expecting it to be a one-off, but it turned out to be a permanent arrangement.

Now, I can see in theory that voting 12 days before the polls open is completely wrong. One should hear all the arguments before taking a view on any debate.

But leave it too long and you start to worry about your vote missing the count due to postal delays. And you end up, as I did in 2010, driving to the nearest polling station to hand over your postal vote in person. Which seems frankly ridiculous.

In any case, personal acquaintance with one candidate, and the conviction that she will be an excellent constituency MP, made her my absolutely obvious choice. I’d like to think I would still have voted for her if she had not been standing for the party to which I owe well over 40 years of tribal loyalty.

Naturally I’m going to feel pretty sick if, in the last week of the campaign, someone uncovers a secret off-manifesto commitment to slay all first-born sons, ban the wearing of ties or make forehead identity tattoos compulsory.

However, the chances of this seem slight. And now that I have become a mere observer of the various campaigns, rather than a potential voter, I can watch the contenders slug it out with the same sort of relaxed detachment with which I always approach the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. (Because, although I went to Cambridge, I have absolutely no interest in rowing.)

This election bears some similarities to that race with its two evenly matched teams slogging hard for the finish line. Though for the comparison to work fully we would have to add an SNP speedboat weaving back and forth across the course, threatening to upset the Conservative and Labour eights in its wash.

Plus a UKIP cabin cruiser, well stocked with gin, a Green pedalo, a Welsh Nationalist coracle and a Lib Dem submarine (actually a sunken coxless four).

The one and only time I went to watch the boat race, because I lived in London and could think of no excuse, it did not happen because Cambridge sank before the event had even started.

At least there is no chance of being denied a fascinating and unpredictable spectacle on the night of May 7th/8th, for which I will lay in Champagne either to celebrate or to drown my sorrows.

I have sat up for every election since 1970, when I enjoyed my first “Portillo moment” as the outgoing Labour foreign secretary George Brown lost his seat at Belper. That was an election the Conservatives were not expected to win; I can vividly remember the BBC bringing on a signwriter to paint some more digits on the Tory side of their swingometer.

The election of 1992 was also a pleasant surprise for those of a Conservative persuasion, though I don’t suppose there is any hope of Ed Miliband holding a triumphalist rally in Sheffield and repeatedly yelling “We’re all right!” to repel wavering voters.

Still, once every couple of decades the pundits seem to get it wrong. Let’s see if the pattern holds next week, with an unexpectedly decisive result for either would-be Prime Minister.

As I always say at weddings, may the best man win.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Could you please just answer the question?

In TV crime dramas, the baddies always respond to difficult police questions with “no comment”.

Who wouldn't rather watch Vera than a political interview?

I’m beginning to wish that politicians would do the same, instead of endlessly churning out the pre-prepared PR boilerplate in which they have been drilled in order to skirt around every difficult issue.

Though my sympathy with TV and radio presenters wearily repeating “Could you please just answer the question?” is reduced by the knowledge that they will instantly condemn and lampoon any politician who actually says what he or she thinks for making a terrible “gaffe”.

Personally, I think we need more and bigger gaffes to enliven this wretched campaign, and open up a bit of clear blue water between the parties.

Boris: a real brick when it comes to gaffes
Nigel: hardly a day goes by ...
Natalie: see above

Because if nothing changes between now and May 7th we seem likely to end up with a dead heat between Labour and the Conservatives. Leaving the politicians themselves to make the unappealing choice between an extremely shaky re-run of the last Conservative-led coalition; or a Labour minority government propped up by the party that looks set to destroy Labour in Scotland and whose very raison d’etre is to do precisely the same thing to the country as a whole.

On either scenario, and whatever the Fixed Term Parliaments Act may say, the chances of us having to re-live the whole election campaign before too long look high. Which would be frankly unbearable.

Since the potential outcome is so finely balanced, the major parties are taking their natural supporters for granted and “reaching out” to potential swing voters from the other side.

So Labour has implausibly become the party of strict financial discipline, while the Tories have discovered a surprising taste for populist giveaways.

If the fringe parties adopted the same approach Natalie Bennett would now be touring the UK in a Maserati while Nigel Farage would be on a chartered boat in the Mediterranean, rescuing would-be immigrants and ferrying them to Dover for a slap-up lunch.

Luckily no such strictures apply to those never likely to have to form a government, so the SNP can cheerily propose “an end to austerity” that would create financial mayhem and undoubtedly lead to yet more austerity for everyone in the long run.

I wrote five years ago that the 2010 election was one to lose, as whoever emerged as the victor was likely to make themselves deeply unpopular by taking the necessary action to put the public finances in order.

In the circumstances, I am pleasantly surprised to find that the Conservative Party is apparently still in with an outside chance of retaining office. Though whether this has more to do with their reasonably solid track record of economic management or the free gift they were handed when Labour chose the wrong Miliband as its leader is hard to say.

I’ve done one of those “who should you vote for?” analyses, correlating party policies with individual desires, and find that I am 38% Conservative, 36% UKIP, 15% Labour, 3% Lib Dem and minus 85% Green.

I imagine that most of us will be similarly conflicted, given the mainstream focus on policies not designed to appeal to their core supporters.

It may seem a bit rich for a PR man to say that what we need for the rest of the campaign is less PR, but anyone who has observed me in what passes for action will know that mine has never been a conventional approach.

So I would greatly welcome the clarity of some anti-PR campaigning by the sort of politicians who rant about “that bigoted woman” live on camera, or say something utterly outrageous with a humorous twinkle, or punch members of the electorate who lob eggs at them.

Allied with a willingness to provide straight answers to straight and sensible questions. (And if it’s an obvious trick question designed to plunge the politician concerned into a pit full of sharpened stakes, then say so, rather than waffling on evasively.)

Otherwise the big winners on May 8th may turn out to be the same as in 2010; the “no comment” party of those who took the trouble to get themselves onto the electoral register but could not find any reason at all to vote.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 15 April 2015

A question of Trust

The National Trust used to be an institution run by toffs for toffs.

There are few greater delights in the English language than the wartime diaries of the arch-snob James Lees-Milne, as he drove around England on behalf of the Trust visiting wildly eccentric aristocrats in their crumbling family seats, endeavouring to save both from utter ruin.

Lees-Milne: a proper toff (and a great diarist)

Now, however, the organisation is run by a former civil servant, Dame Helen Ghosh, with a right-on agenda of focusing above all on the threat from climate change.

While “broadening the appeal” of its properties to people who believe “this place isn’t for them” and perhaps feel awkward “if they didn’t know who George II was.”

Fearing that there is “so much stuff” in its country houses that may put off the thickoes it now sees as its mission to service, the Trust has removed the Regency furniture specially commissioned for the library of Ickworth House in Suffolk, and replaced it with … four bean bags.

Ickworth before and after (with thanks to The Daily Telegraph)

No, really. The idea is apparently to “increase dwell time” in the room, encouraging the public to linger by removing some things that were actually worth pausing to admire.

In line with this philosophy, the importance of the “below stairs” servants’ quarters has been elevated in as many Trust houses as possible, and actors employed to “recreate” scenes from the past for the benefit of those bereft of imagination.

So much for the lost pleasure of wandering around in silence reading a guidebook.

All of this is very much in line with the thinking that seeks to increase the appeal of public libraries by clearing out the books to turn them into coffee shops for video gamers.

As the painter Jonathan Parker remarked in 2013, when the Trust told him to quit his studio at Wallington following the death of his grandmother, whose father Sir Charles Trevelyan had given the house to the Trust:

“The National Trust doesn’t want the inconvenience of involving the family in the house but seems to prefer to run it like an upmarket heritage theme park operator.”

Wallington Hall

Or as the then Viscount Scarsdale told a newspaper in 1994, as the Trust set about his cherished garden ornaments at Kedleston Hall with sledgehammers: “The National Trust don’t really want my opinion because they have already decided what they are going to do.”

How superbly ironic to find a supposedly democratic organisation, obsessed with broadening its appeal, taken to task for its de haut en bas attitude by the head of one of Britain’s grandest families.

And how very right he was, if the evidence of the Trust’s treatment of the beauty spot near my second home in Cheshire is anything to go by.

Bickerton Hill is, or rather was, a gem. Until the Trust started attacking its trees with chainsaws and weedkiller to try to recreate the heathland it supposedly once was.

Bickerton Hill: after

Many locals, who know and love the place, are understandably incensed. A recent public meeting to discuss the tree felling was packed to capacity, lacking only a representative of the National Trust.

They declined to attend because – and I summarise here – we know better than you and we’re never going to agree, so what’s the point?

Personally I fell out of love with the National Trust nearly 20 years ago, when they sent me an enamel lapel badge to mark my quarter century of continuous membership.

I sent it back with a tart note pointing out that I was neither a schoolboy nor a halfwit, and therefore unlikely ever to wear such a thing. I also cancelled my annual direct debit.

Recent events and media coverage have reminded me what a sound decision that was.

The Marquess of Lothian, a great donor to the Trust, claimed that: “Nothing is more melancholy than to visit these ancient houses after they have been turned into public museums.”

But actually something is. Taking a cherished country walk and discovering that it has been turned into a wasteland.

Still, at least the cleared space might make a perfect site for some shiny wind turbines to combat the number one menace of climate change. Though aren’t more trees supposed to be part of the solution to that?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 8 April 2015

My Daddy is older than God

People who think God is talking to them tend to be kept under lock and key, or surrounded by adoring if gullible followers.

Up to now my five-year-old son is neither, but it could clearly go either way.

Shortly before the end of term his Church of England primary school held an Easter service for the children, so we naturally asked him how it went.

“We just sang some songs and God came to talk to us,” he replied disarmingly.

At Charlie’s age I had a clear mental picture of God as a very old Englishman (obviously) with a long grey beard and flowing robes.

But my son’s God is clean shaven and has short white hair and spectacles. I can state this with confidence because he is, in fact, the rector of our parish.

The last time he addressed the school he told them he had just celebrated his 60th birthday. I had passed this landmark myself a few weeks earlier, enabling Charlie to announce proudly that “My Daddy is older than God.”

No doubt we will be able to iron this misunderstanding out eventually, though it is an uphill struggle. The child seems much more willing to accept the existence of Santa Claus than of the Holy Trinity. Though when his first milk tooth began to wobble recently, he announced with great confidence that there was no such thing as the tooth fairy.

A line to which he stuck resolutely until he was advised that there might be money involved.

I don’t understand how one of his tender years has attained such a level of technological sophistication that he can create and constantly add to his own Amazon wish list, yet at the same time believe this is being monitored by Santa. Whose elves, he asserts, are currently labouring away making the Playmobil, Lego, Brio and various other branded goods specified, presumably under licence.

One for a future wish list?

Still, I suppose it is no more implausible than the apparent belief of large sections of the population that those vying for their votes at the forthcoming General Election are going to deliver any material change to their lives.

Life will indeed change, and for most of us will change for the better, if the evidence of the last 60 years counts for anything. But the influence of politicians will be marginal compared with that of inventors, scientists, technologists, creative thinkers of all kinds and even humble marketeers.

When I was Charlie’s age the nearest thing my best friend and I had to mobile phones was two cocoa tins and a length of string. He uses an iPad where I aspired to an Etch-a-Sketch.

Mine was a reasonably prosperous middle class family with a car and a phone (albeit initially a party line shared with the family across the road) but even we did not own the massive luxury of a fridge until I was 10.

At Last The 1948 Show (not Monty Python)

At the risk of sounding like those competitive Yorkshiremen who lived in a shoe in the middle of the road and ate gravel, it is important to pause every now and then and remember just how massively almost every aspect of life has changed during the long reign of the present Queen.

And while we may look back fondly on some aspects of the old days, we should never lose sight of the extent to which our collective lot has improved.

If we are not all full of the joys of spring and attending thanksgiving services it can only be because our expectations have risen more rapidly than the economic system has been able to deliver. 

Capitalism, like democracy, is imperfect, but it is decidedly better than anything else that has been tried up to now. If you doubt that I suggest you read a bit on the history of communism, or take a look at North Korea today.

The bright lights of North Korea:
clearly a Green paradise as well as a Communist one

Whoever wins on May 7th, if indeed anyone does, money will be tight. Taxes will go up and Government spending will be constrained. Accept that, and focus on the many ways that your life continues to improve in ways that have nothing to do with politicians.

If you can’t accept that, you may as well believe in the tooth fairy.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Let's not get depressed about depressives

Are you old enough to remember the Moorgate tube crash of 1975?

Driver Leslie Newson killed himself and 42 passengers on a packed morning rush hour train when he drove it into a wall at the end of the tunnel, having made no attempt to brake.

Witnesses on the platform testified that he was conscious and looking ahead of him with his hands on the controls as he shot past them.

There was intense speculation that he had done it deliberately, but everyone who knew him said it was simply impossible. He was a happy family man who had everything to live for.

Indeed, he had just withdrawn a large amount of money to buy his daughter a car. The cash was still in his pocket when they finally extricated his body from the compacted wreckage several days later.

The cause of the disaster was never determined.

You can perhaps understand why this event came back to mind when news broke of last week’s Germanwings crash. Initially at least, shocked friends of the co-pilot Andreas Lubitz were also telling the media of their disbelief.

But there was one key difference between the two stories: Lubitz had “a history of depression”. Cue an immediate rash of lurid headlines asking why he was ever allowed to fly.

No need to wait until tomorrow for your manure

As a depressive myself for more than 40 years, I naturally take a keen interest in the subject. Where, exactly, should we draw the line?

Clearly if depressives can’t fly planes they certainly shouldn’t be allowed to lead countries. Which would have left a potentially disastrous vacancy in Britain during the Second World War, given Churchill’s lifelong struggle with his “black dog”.

A depressive and a heavy drinker: what could possibly go wrong?

Maybe they shouldn’t be allowed to drive, either. After all, a depressed chef killed himself, a train driver and five passengers by deliberately stopping his car on a level crossing in Berkshire in 2004.

How about restricting access to high buildings while we are about it?

The fact is that many of our greatest statesmen, thinkers and writers have been depressives. Probably more than we know of, given the past tendency to hush such things up.

We should welcome the fact that people have become more open and honest about their mental health issues in recent years. Unfortunately Lubitz was not. The worst possible response to the resulting catastrophe would be to act in a way that might encourage others to conceal their problems. 

Personally, I am a desperately dull depressive. Not being bipolar, I don’t have compensating bouts of mania and euphoria. Just bad days and less bad days. I might well have had more energy, drive and ambition if I had been more consistently happy, but I have held down a job and generally managed to function reasonably normally up to now.

Once in a blue moon I even smile

Suicide has crossed my mind from time to time, but I’ve never felt the urge to take anyone else with me.

It would be no fairer to stigmatise all sufferers from depression as potential murderers than to blame all Muslims for the actions of their lunatic fringe in ISIS, Boko Haram and Al Qaeda.

The number of depressives who do think that way is on a par with the number of those with a terminal cancer diagnosis who decide not to go alone. In other words, vanishingly rare.

In the horses and stable bolts department, the Moorgate crash led to the installation of automatic braking equipment at all tube dead ends. A development that at least had no conceivable downside.

Unlike the increased faffing around the cockpit door that will result from the “two people on the flight deck at all times” rule now being applied across the airline industry, which can only heighten the risk of terrorists gaining access to the controls.

Preventing which was, you may recall, the reason for installing armoured doors in the first place, with the chilling unintended consequence we now see. In the end, whatever we do, the sad truth is that Death will win. Because Death always does.

As my late next door neighbour was fond of saying, “No beggar gets out of this alive.” Although the word he used was not actually “beggar”.

As they say on Crimewatch, don’t have nightmares.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.